Clutch defense down-the-stretch helped the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels extend their win streak to start the new campaign to 10 games. UNLV defeated Washington State, 74-70, in the first game of the Las Vegas Clash from the MGM Grand Garden Arena Saturday, Dec. 10. The team is now 10-0 for the first time since the 1990-91 season when the team lost in the National Championship game to Duke.
“It’s the same team basically,” head coach Kevin Kruger said with a smile. “Settle down, settle down We’re not doing that, we’re not doing that. Guys have done a really good job of working, they’ve done a good job of competing everyday.”
In addition, the Rebels picked up their second Power 5 win of the season after beating Minnesota as part of the SoCal Challenge late last month. In addition, the program picked up its fourth win inside the KenPom Top 100.
“If you remember all the way back to March of the previous year,” Kruger said. “We talked about having a team that the city loves to root for, loves to support, that the alums love to support. I get texts and calls from [UNLV National Champion] Anderson Hunt every time the guys play this year.”
UNLV will return back to the Thomas & Mack Center next week for the second-part of a home-and-home with San Francisco.
“We put [this win] in the bank,” fifth-year guard EJ Harkless said. “Our next opponent is going to be the hardest opponent and we’re going to prepare like it.” That game is scheduled for Saturday, Dec. 17 with tip-off slated for 2 p.m.
An 18-0 first half run by the Rebels, elapsing just over four minutes, changed the complexion of the contest. During that run, UNLV took the lead for the first time after trailing by as many as nine points.
The stingy defense by the program saw the team overcome several scoreless droughts including one of more than two minutes near the end of the first half.
UNLV exacted some revenge in the second half, holding Washington State without a point for more than three minutes. During that time, the Rebels were able to build a lead as large as 10 points. Eventually, the team would go up by as many as 12 points.
Sophomore Keshon Gilbert scored a career-high 25 points on 10-of-15 from the field with three assists and three steals. Gilbert was at the heart of every momentum-changing play on defense in the second half.
“I think every game is really exciting for me for real,” Gilbert said. “This game was kind of special because like you said, this is my career-high but every game is exciting for me.”
At one point, Gilbert picked up his teammate, Harkless, who had fallen as part of a driving layup to put the team up eight. Almost in the same motion, Gilbert picked off the inbounds pass and was fouled going for a layup of his own.
“You can see the mood and kind of the reputation of our team is starting to form a lot to the way Keshon Gilbert plays,” Kruger said. “When you’re the primary ball handler and you’re the point guard and you’ve got those responsibilities, that’s what you’re going to get a lot of times.” As a team, UNLV was able to force Washington State into 22 turnovers while committing seven on the other side. As a result, the Rebels dominated the points off turnover category, 31-6.
The Achilles heel for the Cougars happened to be the three-ball as the team netted 13 of its 23 chances from deep.
“They shot the ball really well,” Kruger said. “They do a really good job of just finding the open guy. And when you’ve got that many guys that can shoot it and make some of the shots they did tonight, that’s probably going to happen.”
Washington State opened the game 5-for-5 from the floor including three made threes. Junior guard Justin Powell went 5-for-6 from three-point range.
The defensive effort was enough to keep UNLV afloat during another scoreless stretch toward the end of regulation. This scoreless drought lasted more than four and a half minutes this time around.
“We do a good job of having good spacing when the flow of the game is kind of up-and-down,” Kruger said. “I think sometimes when it’s slowed down it's sometimes where we don’t have good offensive spacing.”
Harkless followed Gilbert in scoring with 20 points on 7-of-18 shooting to go along with four rebounds and two assists. No other Rebel player scored in double-figures.
Fifth-year guard Elijah Parquet went down about midway through the first half favoring his left knee. He would leave the game and not return to action but could be seen on the bench with his left knee heavily wrapped.
“I don’t think anybody can specifically replace what EP does,” Harkless said. “Nobody in the country. It was a collective unit and coach did a great job of implementing guys in certain spots to help us.”